Rise in child labor in Jordan

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AMMAN — “It makes me feel so ashamed to work in collecting scraps,” said Ahmad, a 10-year-old Syrian refugee living in Amman. “I feel like everyone is looking at me and laughing at me. No matter how much I do it, it never feels normal.”اضافة اعلان

Ahmad has had to collect soda cans and other scrap metal to sell with his father whenever the family had no money.

“We only do it when we’re really desperate,” his father Modhi - the last name was omitted due to safeguarding concerns -, who fled Raqqa with his family to Jordan in 2012, said in an interview with UNICEF, the transcript of which was made available to Jordan News.

“No matter what I tell you, you can’t start to imagine how bad our situation is,” said Modhi, who, along with his family, has been evicted three times and now lives in a decrepit and leaky house on the side of a graveyard. “I am afraid that this winter will be worse because the coronavirus has made everything harder.”

Ahmad’s family is not alone.

Although rigorous data on the trend is difficult to come by, representatives of UNICEF and the National Council for Family Affairs (NCFA) confirmed an observed rise in child labor through their daily work since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

While data was not collected on younger children, UNICEF found that before the pandemic, approximately 23 percent of youth aged 16 to 24 benefiting from UNICEF’s assistance were working or engaged in economic activity. This increased to 24 percent by July 2020, with particular rises among Syrian and male youth, according to a survey conducted by UNICEF.

The number of households with a monthly income of less than JD100 doubled from 6 percent prior to COVID-19 to 12 percent after the onset of the pandemic, according to UNICEF’s socio-economic assessment. Additionally, less than a third (28 percent) of households surveyed had enough money to sustain the household for another two weeks.

The government implemented significant restrictions last year to curtail the spread of the virus, beginning with a mandatory curfew and almost complete economic lockdown.

“There are increased numbers [of child labor] observed due to the pandemic that we have been going through, particularly in the Syrian refugee population,” said Mariyampillai Mariyaselvam, UNICEF’s chief of child protection, though he noted that this finding about the Syrian population came from UNICEF’s day-to-day work, not formal data collection.

“The lockdown has also created an additional burden for these families in terms of access to income generation,” Mariyaselvam added.

The Ministry of Labor was unable to confirm a rise in child labor during the pandemic, due to the absence of a nationally representative survey. Haifa Darweesh, head of child labor division at the ministry stated in a phone interview with Jordan News, that they [Ministry of Labor] conducted between 11,000 and 12,000 inspections in 2020, during which they recorded between 500 and 600 instances of child labor.

The ministry noted that these numbers were likely low because of the lockdown and curfews instituted during the year, which limited economic activity and day labor opportunities.

Meanwhile, Mai Sultan, a representative of the NCFA, attributed the rise in child labor cases observed by the center to “free time” due to the suspension of schools during the pandemic.

“We see, of course, now a lot of kids on the streets, in the shops, in the industrial areas, because they have free time. What we are afraid of is that it will continue like this. Since they have been out of school for almost one year, they might find it [work] more interesting than going back to school, and their parents might find it productive for them also,” Sultan told Jordan News.

She noted, however, that the NCFA only has personal observations about the rise of child labor, rather than quantitative data.

By contrast, the ministry official said that they received an “extremely low” number of reports of child labor despite efforts made to raise awareness of the issue and set up proper reporting mechanisms.

She told Jordan News that the agency is working on establishinga national strategy and coordinating with public and private entities to conduct a national survey on the impact of the pandemic on child labor.

Jordan’s Labor Law prohibits the employment of children and minors. Despite this, child labor persists. The 2016 National Child Labor Survey found that child labor had doubled since 2007, with around 69,000 children working in the country. Around 44,000 of these children were engaged in hazardous work.

“Even if you have strong regulations to protect the child labor situation, the family environment and circumstances ultimately create additional vulnerability in the family,” said Mariyaselvam. “A government may have the law of prohibiting children working under hazardous conditions — this is the case in Jordan — but if a family doesn’t have food to eat, of course there is no alternative opportunity for the family or for the children to follow the legislation.”

The rise in child labor during the pandemic is not unique to Jordan. The International Labor Organization (ILO) predicted in a report that millions of children around the world were at risk for being pushed into child labor, as the root causes of child labor, including poverty, limited access to decent work opportunities for those of legal working age, social marginalization, discrimination, the lack of universal quality education, the prevalence of the informal economy and weak social dialogue, would surge during the pandemic, providing the perfect circumstances for child labor to thrive.

“I don’t even think about the virus,” said Ahmad’s mother, Mariam. “We have enough problems already.”

“I was feeling a lot of stress and so much pressure to educate my children from home. I don’t have the tools to do that as I can’t read or write. It is so difficult to them going to school. We don’t even have a working phone that they can use and we can’t afford data,” she added.